Richard Gill. © Rob Voss
Professor Gill helped exonerate Lucia de B., and is now making mincemeat of the CBS report on benefits affair
Top statistician Richard Gill cracks down on the research conducted by Statistics Netherlands (CBS) into custodial placements of children of victims in the benefits affair. ‘CBS should never have come to the conclusion that this group of parents was not hit harder than other parents.’
Carla van der Wal 26-01-23, 06:00 Last update: 08:10
Emeritus professor Richard Gill would prefer to pick edible mushrooms in the woods and spend time with his grandchildren. Nevertheless, the top statistician in the Netherlands, who previously helped to exonerate the unjustly convicted Lucia de B, is now firmly committed to the benefits affair.
CBS should never have started the investigation into the custodial placement of children of victims in the benefits affair, says Gill. “And the conclusion that this group of parents has not been hit harder than other parents, CBS should never have drawn. It left many people thinking: only the tax authorities have failed, but fortunately there is nothing wrong with youth care. So all the fuss about ‘state kidnappings’ was unnecessary.”
After Statistics Netherlands calculated how many children of benefit parents were placed out of home (in the end it turned out to be 2090), it seemed that victims in the affair lost their children more often than similar parents who were not victims. The results were presented on November 1 last year, which Gill now denounces.
Gill is emeritus professor of mathematical statistics at Leiden University and in the past was an advisor to the methodology department of Statistics Netherlands. In the case of Lucia de B. he showed that calculations that would show that De B. had more deaths in her services were incorrect.
There is a special reason that Gill is now getting stuck in the benefits affair – but more on that later. First about the CBS report. Gill states that Statistics Netherlands is not equipped for this type of research and points out that after two research methods were dropped, only one ‘not ideal, but only option’ remained. He also thinks, among other things, that the more severely affected victims in the benefits affair should be the focus of the investigation. He emphasizes that relatively mildly affected families most likely had to deal with much less drastic consequences. CBS itself also says that it likes to use information about the degree of duping, but that there was none.
CBS also acknowledges some criticisms. “CBS itself has mentioned a number of comments to the report. There seems to be a misunderstanding on one point,” said a spokesperson, who also said that CBS still fully supports the conclusions. CBS will soon be discussing the methodology used with Gill, but in any case CBS sees itself as the right party to carry out the study. “CBS has the task of providing insight into social issues with reliable statistical information and data and has the necessary expertise and techniques. In this case there was a clear social need for statistical insight.”
Gill thinks otherwise and thinks it’s important to raise this. Because he is awakened by injustice. That was also a reason to offer his help when questions arose about the conviction of Lucia de B., who can simply be called Lucia de Berk again since her acquittal. In 2003 she was sentenced to life imprisonment.
With the acquittal in 2010, Gill became not only a top statistician, but also a beacon of hope for people who experienced injustice. And José Booij, a mother of a child placed in care, contacted him many years ago.
Somewhere in Gill’s house in Apeldoorn there is still a box with papers from José. It contains diaries, newspaper clippings and diplomas of hers. She was a little different from other people. A doctor who fell for women, fled the Randstad and settled in Drenthe. There she became pregnant and had a baby. And she had a neighbour with whom she had a disagreement. “That neighbour had made all kinds of reports about José to the local police, said that something terrible would happen to the child.” After six weeks, José’s daughter was removed from home.
“What happened to José at the time, I also call that a state kidnapping, just as the custodial placements among victims of the benefits affair are now called.” The woman continued to fight to get her child back. But gradually that fight drove her insane. She lost her job, she lost her home. She fled abroad. “Despite a court ruling that the child had to be returned to José, that did not happen. José eventually derailed. I now know that she has left information with more people in the Netherlands to ensure that it is available to her daughter when she is ready. But I can’t find José anymore. I heard she was seen in the south of the Netherlands after escaping from a psychiatric clinic in England.”
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Demonstration by victims of the benefits affair. © ANP / ANP
And meanwhile he keeps that box. And Gill thinks of José, when he considers the investigation by the Central Bureau of Statistics into custodial placements of children of victims in the benefits affair. Gill makes mincemeat of it. “The only thing CBS can say is that the results suggest that the differences between the two groups that have been compared are quite small. There should be a lot more caution, and yet in the summary you see bold summaries, such as: ‘Being duped does not increase the likelihood of child protection measures’. I suspect that CBS was put under pressure to conduct this study, or wanted to justify its existence. Perhaps there is an urge to be of service.”
Time for justice
Now is the time to put that right, Gill thinks. Research needs to be done to find out what’s really going on. “I had actually hoped that younger colleagues would have stood up by now, who would take up such matters.” But as long as that doesn’t happen, he’ll do it himself. Maybe it’s in his genes. It was Gill’s mother – he was born in England – who helped crack the enigma code used by the Germans to communicate during World War II. Gill wasn’t surprised when he found out. He already suspected that his excellent mind was inherited not only from his father, but also from his mother.
Yet in the end it was his wife – the love of whom led him settle in the Netherlands – who put him on this track. She pointed Gill to Lucia de Berk’s case and encouraged him to get to work. She may have regretted that. For example, when Gill threatened to burn his Dutch passport during a broadcast of The World Keeps on Turning Round (“De wereld draait door”) if the De Berk case was not reviewed. “She said, ‘You can’t say things like that!'”
In fact, he would like to enjoy his retirement with her now – he has been out of paid work for six years now. Then he would spend his days in the woods looking for edible mushrooms. And spend a lot of time with his grandchildren. But now his calculations also help exonerate other nurses. Last year, Daniela Poggiali was released in Italy after Gill interfered with the case together with an Italian colleague. There are still things waiting for him in England.
And so the benefits affair is here in the Netherlands, which, as far as Gill is concerned, needs more in-depth, thorough research to find out exactly what caused the custodial placements. “That is why I ended up with Pieter Omtzigt and Princess Laurentien, who are also involved in the benefits affair.” Among the people who express themselves diplomatically, he wants to be the bad cop, the man who shakes things up, as he did when he threatened to set his passport on fire. But at the same time, he also hopes that a young statistician will emerge who is prepared to take over the torch.
CBS provided this site with an extensive explanation in response to Gill’s criticism. It recognizes the complexity of this type of research, but sees itself as the appropriate body to carry out that research. An appointment to speak with Gill has already been scheduled. “CBS always tries to explain as clearly and transparently as possible in its reports what has been investigated, how it was done and what the results are.”
Statistics Netherlands also points to nuances in the text of the report, for example after the sentence above a piece of text: ‘Being duped does not increase the chance of child protection measures’. “On an individual level, there may be a relationship between duping and youth protection, which is stated in several places in the report.” Even if ‘on average no evidence is found for a relationship between duping and youth protection’, as Statistics Netherlands notes.
Statistics Netherlands fully supports the research and the conclusions as stated in the report. It is pointed out, however, that there are still opportunities for follow-up research, as has also been indicated by Statistics Netherlands.